Our times are special, but not because of the Internet

As humans, we suffer from a certain amount of egocentrism. When we walk into a big room full of people and accidentally stumble, we might be worried that everyone notices and everyone cares. In reality, most people won’t notice nor care. They are busy focusing on their own self appearance. A related characteristic is that we easily think we are more special, better or smarter than the majority of other people. It’s called “Illusory Superiority” and can be found in many areas.

The egocentrism and perception of being somehow special can also contribute to the impression that humans, as a whole, are special, or that we live in special times. Just think how before Galileo Galilei, common wisdom was that the Earth represented the center of the Universe, and that the Sun orbits around the Earth. Major religions also rely on the idea of humans as very special creatures.

In line with these patterns, most of the people who are following the rise of Information Technology and particularly of the Internet most likely have witnessed themselves expressing or thinking that the world currently experiences extraordinary times, characterized by unprecedented changes which seem to rewrite history at a scale which never happened before.

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However, at least based on the psychological understanding of the human tendency to overestimate the “specialness” of their own existence, one would have to be skeptical about the conclusion that the 21st century would be somewhat more special than other times in history in regards to the impact of new technology and innovation. It indeed is safe to assume that when the letter press, electrical power or the steam engine were invented, thinkers were equally excited about how these innovations would change the world and disrupt established ways of doing things. Due to the brain’s egocentrism, it is just extremely hard for us today to imagine how they felt and experienced this back then.

Does that mean that, despite the seemingly game-changing invention of the Internet and everything else that is being enabled by it, our times in fact are not that much more special and unique than other periods of the past in which new technology and tools massively influenced life, trade and social?

At the risk of fully confirming my initial remark about egocentrism and “being special” thinking, I’d argue that the current times indeed are special, but not because of the type of innovation itself. The big difference to any moment in the past is the accelerated speed with which new, groundbreaking technology is being brought to the masses. To describe it with the words of Ray Kurzweil: “In the 21st century, we won’t be experiencing 100 years of progress but more like 20.000 years of progress (at today’s rate)”. The number might be exaggerated or not, but the general point of exponential acceleration is clearly visible if you look at the historical development of technological advances:

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Image source: curiousapes.com. Please note: The exponential curve of the graph is just a symbolic visualization of the trend.

Thus, what makes our times indeed special is not the fact of appearance of disrupting innovation like the Internet itself, but the breathtaking pace with which new, wide-reaching things are being brought to the people. And since crucial inventions often are built on existing technology, with each revolutionary new thing, something even more cutting-edge is becoming possible thanks to it. It took centuries until large numbers of people all around the world were able to consume books themselves frequently, maybe one century until electricity was widely available to consumers in industrial nations, a few decades until more than 3 billion people worldwide had access to Internet, and only a few years until the milestone of 1 billion people with smartphone was reached. It’s estimated that more than 6 billion people will own a smartphone by 2020. Only 13 years after the creation of the iPhone.

The impact is profound: The various systems of today’s civilization — usually evolved and modernized artifacts of past centuries — are having less and less time to adjust and to digest the new circumstances created through technological progress. But as most people don’t enjoy too much change at once, many feel an increased stress about too many of the building blocks of their world being questioned at once as a consequence of the introduction of new technology. That might be one explanation for the reactionary forces that are gaining ground in many parts of the Western world. But in my opinion, the only smart and sustainable response that really will be effective for handling the acceleration is to learn to adapt to change and to use it to improve the world, instead of reverting back to old, flawed ways of doing things.

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